After the Brexit vote, one of repeating themes was: "If only knowledgeable people were allowed to vote and dumb people were not allowed to vote!"

Let's have look at this political system closer:


  • Everyone of legal age is allowed to vote.
  • All votes happen through electronic system.
  • Before you can cast your vote, you have to pass a test on the subject you are voting on (see examples below).
  • You will be presented voting options after you take the test (even if you failed).
  • But if you failed the test, your vote is not counted.
  • About 80% of those who vote pass the qualifying test.
  • The electronic voting system is failsafe - no one wants or tries to hack it (Strong assumption, I know. But the scope of this question is to aim at the political system and not on possible flaws in voting machines).

Question: Will this system provide any value added compared with the current democratic system?


Before casting a vote for American President you should know what each president actually can do.

Before casting a vote to leave EU, you should know what the European Union is.

For narrowing scope of this question down, assume that this system is introduced "right now" (Earth, current day and tech) in USA.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This isn't far removed from the patrician system of the Ancient Rome. It would provide no value, except that the uneducated would feel (rightly) even more disencfranchised than they do presently. The fact that people would not know whether or not they passed the test would make no difference. $\endgroup$
    – Strawberry
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 14:41
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Strawberry Not really, this doesn't involve being born into the voting category. $\endgroup$
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 16:12
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ What happens if a bunch of voters who are in favour of the status quo decide to deliberately fail the test as a form of protest? How do you interpret the results then? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 20:15
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ If you're referring to the spike in Google searches for “What is the EU?” the night after Brexit, there are ways to explain it other than “voters are dumb”. Surely, some of those searches were from non-voters wondering what the hell everyone else was talking about, and others from voters who knew what the EU is but wanted a good explanation video to e-mail to their apolitical and/or American friends. $\endgroup$
    – dan04
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 5:05
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If I was implementing such a system, I would publish the full list of possible questions and accepted answers several weeks before the election. The answers can be audited for accuracy and bias as well as learned. $\endgroup$
    – spraff
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 16:20

16 Answers 16


What you're describing is essentially a literacy test.

The biggest concern here is that this test could be manipulated to exclude certain groups of people. For example, the state of Louisiana used a test to try to disenfranchise black voters in 1964.:

A group of Harvard students were recently asked by their tutor to sit the 1964 Louisiana Literacy Test - a notorious document with confusing questions that was used to stop black citizens from voting.

Just 50 years ago, states in the South asked voters who couldn't provide proof of a fifth grade education to pass the test in order to be eligible to cast a ballot.

The test was intended to disenfranchise African-Americans, who in order to pass had to correctly answer all 30 questions in 10 minutes.

Despite their Ivy League pedigree, none of the students managed to pass the test

As the quote above shows, these tests can be manipulated to determine who should vote.

The most likely outcome to this test would be that whoever controls the test will control the government.

Some commenters have suggested that the test could be unbiased. Even if this is true, the way that it is conducted (allowing everyone to vote, only counting some) runs the risk of angering the losing party. Whether or not the quiz is truly unbiased (which is difficult to do), there will be the accusation of bias. If a country gets to a point where a significant portion of the voting group does not feel like their votes count, civil unrest will occur (see Brexit or the Trump and Sanders campaigns).

In addition, I have serious doubts about the possibility of a truly unbiased test. Something as simple as asking about a state capital in a certain region of the country would disproportionately favor voters from that region. Since voters tend to cluster with like voters, this could unintentionally (or intentionally) remove more voters from one side of the political spectrum due to location.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 16:44
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ What the OP's proposing isn't a literacy test. A literacy test tests your ability to read and write, not your knowledge of the ramifications of a decision. But other than that, spot on. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 15:11
  • 19
    $\begingroup$ @T.J.Crowder Maybe not a literal literacy test, but the concept is the same. $\endgroup$
    – kuhl
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 16:14
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ It is important to note that in your example not everyone was required to take the test, therefore it doesn't follow the OP's assumptions. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 18:48
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @thethuthinnang no I do not agree with you. This is a real world example of a time when a test was used to disenfranchise certain voters, and so does apply to the OPs question. There are other examples, but this is one of the best known $\endgroup$
    – kuhl
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 19:05

The disadvantage I see here is who decides what is worth knowing? Not only does this open up a can of worms regarding discrimination and corruption, but it ignores some very interesting aspects of humanity such as the 'wisdom of the crowds':

The notion that a group’s judgement can be surprisingly good was most compellingly justified in James Surowiecki’s 2005 book The Wisdom of Crowds, and is generally traced back to an observation by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1907. Galton pointed out that the average of all the entries in a ‘guess the weight of the ox’ competition at a country fair was amazingly accurate – beating not only most of the individual guesses but also those of alleged cattle experts. This is the essence of the wisdom of crowds: their average judgement converges on the right solution.


Or in other words, while you may think it is silly that some people would vote to remain or leave the EU without knowing what it even is, it may still be a key contributor to good decision making on the whole.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ While this is quite interesting, in a system where you vote between people, it can get tricky trying to take an average. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 13:22
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ The ox example does not quite apply to elections, though, because guesses are on a linear scale, such that a arithmetic middle (and related properties) makes sense, but votes are cast on a “pick 1 of n” base and the mode is the deciding measure, because it is a categoric (sometimes binary) scale. Also, the real value is known only for the weight of the ox. $\endgroup$
    – Crissov
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 19:17

After Brexit vote, one of repeating themes was: "Only if knowledgeable people were allowed to vote and dumb people were not allowed to vote!"

Looking at the Brexit vote in particular, I'm not sure that this would matter. The particular problem with the Brexit vote wasn't that people didn't know what the EU was. The main problem was that voters didn't believe the consequences that were threatened if Brexit passed. But to prevent that, you would have to essentially allow the anti-Brexit people to write the voting test.

There are two problems with letting anti-Brexit write that test. First, if Brexit had failed because of pro-Brexit voters being disenfranchised by a voting test, it wouldn't have drawn off the pro-Brexit anger. It would have let it not only fester but grow. All those people regretting their pro-Brexit votes would be angry about not being able to vote. They'd be even more pro-Brexit than previously.

The second problem is for other votes. Maybe you are anti-Brexit and happy enough to have the establishment stomp it. But what happens when it's your side that wants something that gets blocked by the test? Will you simply be happy that your side fell to the more informed side? Or will you be angry too?

Now there are groups of angry voters who want to get rid of this undemocratic voting test. There are two possibilities. The first is better. There are enough voters opposed to the test that it gets voted out. The second is that people are just plain angry. What happens when people feel powerless and angry? They resort to violence.

The great thing about democracy is that it allows people to feel that if they could only convince others to vote with them, change is possible. If people learn that that is impossible, then we go back to the old way of changing government: violent revolution.

  • $\begingroup$ Very good. Points probably most important problem in OP's system. One group, of not totally happy peoples are able to solve problems they have to solve. But fighting inside will not only not help to solve problems, but will create lot new problems. They will create more more and more problems until they exhaust, and most of them agree, we have problems to solve, time to solve now and begin work as group. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ You are saying that everyone would just "give up" instead of actually doing some research before voting next time, so their voices would be heard? The government could also provide some education before a vote on what are the consequences etc. $\endgroup$
    – akaltar
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ To be fair, the BRemain people would have to take a BRExit test. $\endgroup$
    – cup
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 12:50
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ +1, the main advantage of democracy is not the "wisdom of the crowd", it's providing people with a peaceful means of influencing the politics. $\endgroup$
    – user31389
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 15:42
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @akaltar No. I'm saying that the problem with Brexit was not, largely, that people did not know what experts were saying. It was that they didn't believe it. So if you asked them on a test, "Will Brexit cause the stock market to fall?" They would have answered no. Failing them on that wouldn't change their minds. At best, they might start lying on the test. Also, if it's a fair test, with both sides writing the questions, some of the questions would have been things like "Do you know that if we Remain, immigrants who don't even speak the language will take more and more of our jobs?" $\endgroup$
    – Brythan
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 18:29

Will this system provide any value added compared with current democracy system?

The crux of this question is, as always when dealing with politics: to whom? For that reason, let us examine the change in value to various demographic slices. These are not meant to be comprehensive, nor mutually exclusive.

Value for the Ruling Class

For the purposes of this discussion, the 'ruling class' are those who have disproportionately large say in the affairs of government and policy. In the United States currently, this can loosely be defined as people who are, on average, better off, better educated and/or have some means to spend a significant amount of their time embedding their judgment in actual legislative or legal policy.

Generally speaking, on average, people do not give up power they have willingly. Some will choose to do so for philosophical reasons, and some will do so rather than risk something else (life, assets, etc.). But there are only rare occurrences where an enfranchised class simply give up power they have. Therefore we can assume that the current ruling class would not accept a 'filtered' voting system unless one of two things happen:

  • They maintain or increase their demographic's control of the political machinery.
  • They are being forced by a superior effort to accede control in this manner.

Addressing the latter first: it is hard to imagine what movement would arise that would put as a central tenet a filtering of the voting system. Typically this happens in the reverse: peasant revolts against landed nobles, or minorities marching to be given the vote. It's hard to imagine that a movement would say, "We are here to exclude 'x' group, which includes a large number of ruling class members, and will do 'y' problematic thing if not given this concession." Perhaps I lack imagination, though.

What this means is that it's reasonable to assume the ruling class would have a large hand in designing the details of the system - where, as always, the true devil lays. Specifically, they would have to decide these broad areas:

  • Who gets to decide what questions are asked for a given vote.
  • How changes in who gets to decide are effected.
  • What sorts of questions are appropriate for the test, which the people in charge of coming up with them would have to adhere to. We can assume there would be a large number of such rules. (As an aside: the voting in the US today is fairly complex because a number of edge cases must be addressed at every polling place, such as how blind, deaf or otherwise disabled persons can vote, or how information is communicated to those who don't speak English. Therefore we know the rules around the questions would be quite numerous.)

Let us consider the direction of politics each of these effect.

Who Decides the Questions

For a long time institutions have taken on the personality based on the goals they were originally formed around. For instance, while the Department of Agriculture is ostensibly about growing food, one of it's early goals was to promote the trade of food. Even today 'trade' is one topic on it's website and many of it's policies are actually purely economic in nature, rather than scientific or even very food-related at all. This is because promoting American food was very important to the US economy at the time of the founding of the Department of Agriculture. So the climate in which the 'filtered election board' is created is very important to how it turns out. The reason this is important is because it selects the biases that become 'unseen'. All humans are biased, but we tend to overlook certain biases based on our environment. These unseen biases will enfranchise certain parties over others.

If the climate is one of rampant nationalism, for instance, you might expect an institution that produces questions deeply embedded in American culture, thus confusing recent immigrants. If the climate is one favoring older Americans, it may use references to things that happened prior to the lifetime of young voters, thereby impacting their ability to answer correctly. Even maths questions can be asked using different methods, and if you are unfamiliar with the way a question is presented it can inhibit your ability to answer. Were you taught math using new math or reform mathematics? If the writer of a question comes from a different context (educational, lingual, cultural, etc.) than you it will impact your ability to answer correctly. Further, we know that because people tend to hire people similar to themselves that these biases will linger, even if the political winds drift to different shores.

How Changes in Who Gets to Decide Are Effected

Given an institution of some variety to decide questions, we also have to ask how the members of that institution change. This is a classic governance problem: you can go the route of the Supreme Court and once elected to the Filtered Election Institute you are there for life. This is very good if you happen to be good, and very bad if you happen to be bad. It could be a randomly selected, rotating set of people, in which case most of the institutional knowledge will reside not in the decision makers but in the 'hidden' support staff and tools. This makes detecting problems very difficult and pernicious, but to a degree blunts the amount of damage they can do. It can be appointed by the current ruling power, which has some of the problems of both: as we see in gerrymandering whoever is in power is liable to modify the rules in such a way as to extend their power.

What Sort of Questions Are Appropriate

There is a very difficult nut to crack here, in terms of justice, and it has two faces. The first face is one of aroused bias: as explained here even the order of questions will affect the opinion of the person being polled. If I am asking about Presidential candidates, what I ask about them will matter: How many years of foreign affairs experience does Guy DeFalt have? will prime the test-taker to think about foreign affairs, rather than some other category.

The second issue is one of indirect filtering. Someone who is very good at critical thinking cannot deduce the founding date of the European Union, nor be able to name the member states. Someone very good at memorization, though, could. There are plenty of examples of savants who might not be able to reason about whether a thing is good who would nonetheless know a great deal about that thing.

What this means is that the 'intelligence' being tested is unlikely to be in line with the 'intelligence' that is needed to make a good decision. Instead, it becomes a lever to select who gets to decide: perhaps someone who has been prepped on how to formulaically respond to the questions, or people who adhere to a particular party line.

How the decision of what questions are appropriate is decided, along with what additional information is provided with the question, will decide who 'seems' smart enough.

Final Ruling Class Notes

Naturally, all of these seem to favor the ruling class, and with most systems that filter out some members of a nation, it tends to entrench the ruling class (even if that class is poorly defined). For this reason American democracy, a 'representative democracy' is often correctly named a 'Republic': the difference being that in a Republic only certain members are allowed to vote. But wait! Isn't everyone in America allowed to vote? The answer, as betrayed by your description, is no:

Everyone of legal age is allowed to vote.

'Legal Age' is one way the 'ruling class' in America maintains it's control. It is assumed that people under a certain age are too dumb/uneducated/biased/controllable to vote. In essence we already filter the vote. And the effects are clear: we tend to vote towards things that favor adults, whereas concerns about early education, child health, and so on must be dealt with indirectly by people who do have a vote but care selflessly enough about those issues to be the voice of children. The effect varies depending on the specific issue, but the notion that you can give 'lip service' to eduction, for instance, is common: use it for good press but never fund it as well as, say, the military or social security. It is hard to think that this state of affairs is really in the full, 100% best interest of children, and so we see an effect on the filtered-out class: their actual best interest is a national second-interest. This specific form of filtering became a hot issue during the Vietnam War draft debate when children unable to vote were nonetheless forced into military service by ruling class (those who could vote). They weren't even allowed to drink legally at the time, and it took the casualties of WWII, Korea and Vietnam to finally force the political machinery to address the filter.


Next we turn to people who vote. Does this system provide value to the electorate? Presumably the idea is that they want a better result, to have their voices heard better by filtering out voices that should not be heard.

Better Result

The real issue with any filtering situation is determining whether one result is 'better' or not. Philosophically this is a problem: if you decide 'x' result is 'better', and you tune the system to give you 'x' result, then you're effectively removing democracy. The value added here, then, is that the electorate feels that the result they wanted is the result they got, rather than mostly feeling like they didn't get what they want. The value is faith in the system.

Ironically, you have to look not-too-closely at this form of democracy to net this result. A test filtering for critical thinking might undo the value you get from the test by choosing only those who will not easily be duped by a biased system.

It is interesting, too, that there is an implied assumption here: that the nation would make better decisions if only the process by which they made decisions was better. But it assumes the bottleneck is the decision process and not the decision makers: this is akin to the difficulty with testing-based education. Even with the best tests you might find the best decision makers, but you're not guaranteeing an overall improvement in the decisions being made - suggesting the only 'better' results can come from an overall improvement in the quality of voter. (Which is impeded by expense.)


One aspect of this is that it requires a great deal of additional effort on the part of voters. Already in the United States voting levels are very low, and in particular people tend to only vote on big-ticket, high-level elections. If they vote on lower-level elections, it is often only when they are voting at the same time for a higher-level election. Often they don't vote because voting is difficult and time consuming. Sometimes voters only vote on the one thing they care about and leave the rest of the ballot blank (begging the question as to whether they would take the time to do the test first, or stick around and take the test after if that was the ordering).

By requiring voters to 'study up' to vote, and to take additional time to answer questions the system becomes one where, naturally, more people self-select out: it's too much effort. Therefore the value to the voters is that those who do vote are particularly motivated. Via another method, Robert Heinlein asserted this 'limited democracy' in his book Starship Troopers. A system requiring highly motivated voters is likely to be one that has many such artificial barriers in place: a meritocracy whose quality is proportional to the degree with which the barriers are in line with what they are testing for. The specific effects of this could be varied, and interesting to play with.

As a quick aside: it would also greatly increase cost to run a specific polling place and elections in general. Recounts become not only recounts of votes but of filtering tests. The length of the election is potentially increased in close races, and the value to the motivated voters feeds back on itself: the next time you have to be even more motivated knowing that your vote may not be correctly counted even with all the effort you're expending. Each new barrier or filtering test increases the chance of something going wrong or the system skewing in an unintended way. Faith becomes doubly tested.


Another interesting question is what value is presented for non-voters. The system proposed has a particularly curious tangle: the voter doesn't know if they're a voter.

Unfortunately, lacking imagination, I'm hard pressed to come up with even a scant value for the voter here. Already, we exist in a system where we must place great trust in the machinery to count our vote. Votes are often accidentally discarded or lost. Hanging chads and marking disagreements abound - and there are electronic equivalents. In a system where there was both a ballot and a test, and a failing score on the test invalidates the ballot counting and verification of the count becomes problematic. I, as a voter, don't know that if my time was well spent or meaningless. I have no way of verifying myself that the ballot was cast.

The primary value here, actually, seems to be for those who would foment anger at the system: they could easily point to the system and say, "For all you know, you voted and they did what they wanted anyway!" We can easily imagine a Nigel Farage, post a 'Remain' vote saying, "Well, I just can't imagine all these impassioned people having voted 'stay': the test is rigged, the system is rigged!"

And, of course, in this proposal it is rigged. But it seeks to create a larger class of non-voters, on the assumption that 'intelligent' voters would vote 'better'. Without knowing if your vote counted (if it was 'good enough'), it's hard not to feel like you were in the 'stupid' class of people if what you wanted didn't win. If things start going wrong, how can you not feel angry and powerless? That sense of powerlessness is useful for those who would make marked, large changes to the system. People act funny when they suspect they might not be at the cool kids table: that chaotic behavior is rarely good for stability (or that matter the ruling class).


As indicated, a lot would depend on how this system was implemented. There are certainly modifications or implementation details that could be utilized to enhance value for some people and reduce damage for others. But the nature of those details would affect the resulting 'world' that arose. Certainly it would change how power flowed from the electorate to the decision makers, and the notion of a quantum vote (did it count?) is intriguing in it's own right. The outcomes are very hard to predict, but it would certainly seem to hurt the disenfranchised and help the ruling class: the question then is if the hurt is less than the total value to the system. (Which, indeed, is a very broad question.) It seems fairly obvious why filters have been removed over time rather than added: inclusivity leads to less anger in the general populace. (Remember, the US originally only allowed land owning men to vote: filters have changed greatly over the years!) Based on what drove the removal of those filters we can see what we would be (eventually) getting by putting them back into place.

But to directly answer your original question: would there be value added by filtering a vote based on a test? Yes, some value would be added for some people. The specific people would depend on the details of how and what precise filter was added. Value would be taken away from other people, already likely under-represented in the system. An 'educated' vote is likely to come at the cost of a populace with less faith in that voting system. In the short term, the best interests of those making the change are likely to be best served. In the long term, it's likely to be a less stable system.

Addendums and Asides

  • To bring Brexit back into this: those who voted to Leave often did so because they felt they lacked a direct representative voice in the EU politics, and were being screwed by the ruling British class and the EU bureaucrats. The EU was not benefitting them directly. While it may have been bad for the system, they used this vote to voice the fact their votes elsewhere seemed to not be counting - and by 'not be counting' I mean that their best interests were not being served. In this manner the referendum was an indirect vote on the quality of the system: the voters know something is wrong, even if they don't know the immensely complicated economics of the EU-British situation. When they're asked about the EU, they voice something is wrong by voting for change. Simple votes are rarely about a direct, singular, easy-to-understand, up-and-down issue.
  • You also posit 80% of the populace must pass. It's unclear whether this is decided 'for that election' (i.e. the top 80% of the test takers have their vote counted) or 'for future elections' (in which case the questions might eventually drift to 'so easy to answer anyone can do it'). In either case it begs the question as to whether voters should care about the test: if more than 20% of the voters answer no questions then they all equally have a chance to have their completely unvalidated vote being counted. In fact, depending on how you 'score' the test, their votes may count more than someone who tests badly, or someone who answered test questions randomly. This is the question as to whether a non-answer is penalized more or less than a wrong answer. This is a big deal, and has plagued college entrance exam tests for years, but in the case you posit it suggests the 'smart' thing for voters to do is universally decide not to take the test.
  • A security flaw also arises if the test must be passable by 80% of the people. In this situation you can probably game the system by answering just enough of the questions correctly, and then the remaining questions can be used to encode who you are. This is a problem because it means that third parties can positively identify which vote was yours, and determine whether you voted as they wanted you to. California has roughly 40M people (the most populous state), meaning that with as few as eleven 'optional' five-response questions you could easily positively identify any single voter. (Can you ascertain the voter has enough knowledge with fewer than 14 questions?) Meaning people could be coerced into voting. I'm sure there are even more efficient ways (i.e. fewer questions needed to uniquely id an individual) to do this.
  • The proposed system also suggests that the questions are topical: that is, they relate to the vote. The Filtered Election Institute would have to know an immense amount, or outsource expertise, to determine good questions to test for competence in any given area. Note that the current educational system struggles to do just this, and their sole mandate is educating and articulating the differences in education between people. The FEI would be a very interesting institution because the shortcuts it chose would have profound impacts. Great fodder for a dystopian novel there.
  • $\begingroup$ I think you're misinterpreting the question with your assertion that the test must be passable by 80% of the people. As I read it, there doesn't seem to be any requirement in the question about how many people must pass the test. It's just saying that, if it's necessary for answerers to make assumptions about the difficulty of the test, they should assume it happens to be hard/easy enough that about 80% of otherwise-eligible voters would pass. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 21:01
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ +1, but you forgot one other crucial point: Who decides what the "correct" answers are. An economics test devised by a neo-liberal will have a very different "correct" answer to "Is it wise to regulate what businesses can do?" than one devised by a consumer-rights advocate. $\endgroup$
    – cas
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 11:08
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, legally they are required to start a new StackExchange site, upon which possible answers will be suggested and up or down voted by the community to democratically arrive at the "best" one, so concerns over correctness have already been handled! $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 16:32

There actually is such a system in place today: the market.

In a market, the questions are disaggregated into individual choices about individual goods and services, and the answer isn't jut a binary Yes/No, but on a sliding scale (how much is it worth to you?). In a market and market economy, you "vote" every day and cast ballots with your dollars.

The BREXIT vote did have a market counterpart: the London and global Stock Exchanges. While the result of the BREXIT vote caused a short term drop in market valuation, the supposedly "smart" people who predicted disaster were proven wrong since the markets recovered remarkably rapidly.

In a sense we are already "voting" in the market, the fluctuations in the market caused by announcements of political policy, the rise and fall of various currencies and even the movement of people from one jurisdiction to another (voting with your feet) are all market based responses to political policy.

The real trick is to go forward rather than backwards with this idea, using markets to set policy rather than to respond to policy. One possible way would be to "auction" legislation. Today this is done through powerful lobbyists using financial and other manipulation to influence lawmakers. Because this isn't transparent, and generally lobbyists are spending their money in the hope of a return (i.e. policies which favour them or disadvantage their rivals), the outcomes are fairly narrow an only apply to the favoured few (incidentally, this was one of the key reasons that the BREXIT vote for leave won; the EU is notoriously non transparent).

Rather than "auction" legislation in private, proposed legislation can be put on the internet, and people can "buy" votes. While this might initial favour the rich and powerful, they will be spending money which (ideally) would be used to run the functions of government, and reducing the amount of resources they have for other things (Frédéric Bastiat described the concept of Opportunity Cost in his 1860 essay: Ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on ne voit pas), which could eventually even things out as they spend more time and resources on politics than wealth creation.

Like every other system, there are opportunities to game the system and otherwise discover unexpected or unwanted outcomes, but this really puts your money where your mouth is, and allows you to vote on a continuing basis for or against laws and regulations rather than simply at periodic intervals.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ This would not work because a small group of rich people would slash top tax rates, making them even richer. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 21:38
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ This is problematic because it does not scale: if everyone had the same amount of money, within an order of magnitude, it might be feasible. But the so-called 1% own half the wealth. Meaning 99 people would need to gang up on the wishes of 1 just to have an equivalent vote. That sort of undermines the notion of there being real opportunity cost in this system. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 22:13
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Simba that argument is akin to saying "it's already broken, so it's ok that it's broken". If you're fine arguing for a plutocracy that's fine, but it's hard to dress it up in a way you can call it democracy. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 17:33
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @supercat But I'm not overlooking the fact that someone with a billion dollars in assets can spend literally a million dollars per dollar someone with thousands in assets can. And most people don't even have thousands. Such a system gives them the ability to out bid and stay richer than everyone else, period. I'm not saying there is no merit to the system, but I think a reasonable result to expect is that the vast majority of the populace would be shut out of it and therefore without representation. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 0:29
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @supercat But our current system has strong diminishing returns: past a certain point money only gets you so far. Take Jeb Bush's campaign against Trump, or Romney against Obama. In both the majority voters won and spent less money. Why is a system where money wins every time (and wins with economic efficiency) better, knowing that money effectively never runs out? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 10:32

Realistically a system which requires such qualified voting would have to be some sort of direct democracy. It is not really compatible with representative democracy. There is no way to predict whether someone will do a good job as a president. Similarly the question asked in the brexit referendum was actually too complex for anyone to have a fact based answer. To know whether it is better for the UK to be in or out, you would have to predict what happens in both cases and compare the two. Which is impossible. So for people to make informed votes, the questions need to be very specific and fully specified.

Conversely you can argue that direct democracy requires a system such as you describe to function. Otherwise people will tend to vote based on what the people they support say is correct. Which is pretty much the same as current system. Honestly the brexit referendum wasn't really about the EU, it was about which set of politicians you distrust more.

So instead of a value add, I think it would be entirely new political system and the main effect would be total reformation of politics based on direct democracy.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, referendum is "direct democracy" - in a way... $\endgroup$
    – Kyslik
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 5:18
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Kyslik It is a "primitive" form of direct democracy. While referendums can be binding they are fundamentally about people who actually have power deciding to ask a question of their choosing about a topic they choose under the terms they choose. And since referendums are so rare they tend to devolve into popularity contests between campaigns with what people actually think on the topic getting buried on the noise. So a functional direct democracy would have to improve quite a lot. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 6:05
  • $\begingroup$ I know and agree on all your points; I was referring to UK referendum; If government decides to not leave EU, its going to have impact on trust of current (at the moment of leave/not-leave decision) party - and it is going to be labeled as an un-democratic decision. So logical conclusion is that next PM is most likely going to invoke article 50 - because people voted so (direct democracy). Or maybe Cameron will take hit for UK & EU and will anull the referendum (if that is possible). $\endgroup$
    – Kyslik
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 6:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Kyslik It is not possible to annul the referendum since in the UK referendums do not actually have any real legal meaning. Government is perfectly free to just ignore the result. Of course since everybody was claiming to respect the results before the vote, the hit on the personal credibility of the people (and even parties) involved would be devastating. But despite public claims otherwise there wouldn't really be legal or constitutional issue. Just a political one. Given how split the country was not sure if there is a democratic choice. Either way roughly half the people will be ignored. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 6:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I disagree about Brexit being about the politicians. Some of the politicians I respected the most were leading the campaign backing the option I didn't vote for. If anything I was astounded how many people were trying to play party politics in a vote that was nothing to do with what the parties thought - it was entirely about what the people thought and the decision split parties apart for the sake of the campaign. $\endgroup$
    – Pharap
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 7:15

I think if you want to filter people from the voting system, then you need to filter way before they can even reach a voting machine. The system you propose is defeatable. Just have voting booth with privacy and a smartphone. It's also very arbitrary and hard to control.

If you are going to filter people, you need a filter that isn't discriminating. Filtering people based on whether they know something or not, or whether they had proper education or not, it's flimsy.

A better filter could be civil/military service. You serve for X years, and you get the right to vote. You serve for Y more years, you get the right to be elected or access some higher unelected offices. That way, it's a right you earn. Anybody can earn it, but they can only earn it at a non-negligible personal cost (i.e. giving years of your life to the nation).

Any idiot can read a pamphlet from a candidate that will give all the answers your machine expects, but to go through years of service takes proper motivation. It wouldn't be something taken for granted, it would be something earned, and something earned is less likely to be misused because of all the trouble you went through to earn it.

Obviously, no system is perfect, this one included.

  • 9
    $\begingroup$ Starship Troopers, anyone? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ Are you a Heinlein fan? The discussion of this he set forth in Starship Troopers did not translate well to the movie, but is thought provoking (and fairly contentious). $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @NathanielFord I've read the book. It's an interesting idea at least. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 20:49
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I agree! I think that service-as-barrier is fundamentally a different filter than test-as-barrier, because it qualifies based on what someone does, rather than what someone is. It therefore sidesteps a lot of bias issues (or perhaps simply displaces them to other systems), and is very interesting as a result. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ @NathanielFord Or higher-education-as-barrier? $\endgroup$
    – Kyslik
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 5:20

If you would have a political tests on the powers of the president it might have a question like: Can the president start a war without approval of congress?

Constiutionally declaring war is the prerogative of congress but in practice US presidents do have the power to start war.

A person creating the test could decide on what happens to be the right answer based on their own political beliefs. That means they can filter who's allowed to vote based on the political beliefs of the person.

You can't have a test without a person writting the test. Thinking of the test being unbaised is like thinking of Supreme Court Justices being unbaised. The human element is always present and can't be simply removed.


Much shorter answer:

The point of voting in a democracy is not to find the best choice on a ballot.*

The point of voting in a democracy is to prevent unrest and armed rebellion.**

* Everyone can easily see countless examples where democracy lead to incredibly bad decisions, the most famous one being Germany in the thirties.

** The popular vote prevents a strong mismatch between the government and popular opinion, which is a necessary precondition for a revolt.

The logical conclusion is that by restricting the right to vote of a large part of the populace, you negate the primary advantage of democracy and significantly increase the risk of a civil war.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I downvoted you because you make two unsubstantiated statements, declare them as fact, and don't actually answer the question! That question was "What would the effect of <the proposed system> be?" This is a worldbuilding forum, not actually a political opinion forum! $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 18:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @NathanielFord I thought the substance behind the claims would be obvious, as would the answer to the question. It seems I was wrong, so I added the explicit explanation. Thanks for the constructive criticism in the first 2 of your 3 sentences. $\endgroup$
    – Peter
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 10:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Your points are still without substance, just opinions. $\endgroup$
    – hyde
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 3:49
  • $\begingroup$ @hyde Opinions that are logically sound, with clearly laid out reasoning, and even a real world example. According to my "opinion" that's called "substance" in the vocabulary of the average person. I don't see many answers on the entire worldbuilding site that provide more than that, and I see not a single answer that provides more than that on this specific question. $\endgroup$
    – Peter
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 7:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Peter Your arguments are not logically sound, a case of democrazy failing to produce "good outcome" is not argument about the point of democracy (I mean, it'd invalidate your 2nd point too, democracy has failed to prevent unrest and rebellion many many times). Further, even if your argument about democracy being good at preventing unrest and rebellion was true, it doesn't say anything about that being the point of democracy. $\endgroup$
    – hyde
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 8:31

In addition to important points raised by others

There is risk in the questions

Here's a quick set of guidelines from a survey system provider that explains a lot of what can go wrong. Though I'll give a couple of crude Brexit related examples.

1) How much have immigrants overwhelmed the local services in your area?

2) The EU invests £1000/person/year in your region, how much has this improved your area?

There's no subtlety in either of these questions, it's possible to write deliberately leading questions with a lot more style, it's also easy to write leading questions by accident. If you sit people down and ask them a series of badly worded questions before allowing them to make a decision you can easily affect the outcome.


No, your proposed system would not provide any value added to the current democratic process, as it would promote certain ideals of political reason and further hinder political discussion within communities.

Kuhl's answer is the start to an interesting discussion of political philosophy that has emerged in the current generation of the Frankfurt school of critical theorists. As reason cannot be conceived to be a universal (e.g. Hegel's critique), a literacy test is bound with a limited perception of reason (as no universal reason can be used for the creation of this test). Thus, limiting the voting population by such a test would, and has, lead to hegemony.

The Frankfurt school's response to this was the concept of "communicative reason," which, in its simplest terms, is the reason that emerges when the personal histories (e.g. "leaving the European Union would affect my son's job") of citizens interact. From this, a conception of "deliberative" democracy has been formed. Thucydides's concept of deliberation within the market is beset by historical power relations (e.g. "slavery was at the foundation of American capitalism") and ignores a history of the critique of capital (Marx and those who follow his tradition). The "deliberative democracy" approach is that of creating centers of political discourse within communities (with panels of legislators and researchers for reference) to provide consensus on topics. There are many current debates on the precise methodology, but the core idea, I believe, is the key to the issue you've presented. Political communication and deliberation on the level of democratic constituents might not have prevented "Brexit," but would have allowed for a meaningful discussion, rather than political discord, to have come out of either decision.

  • $\begingroup$ Love the philosophical synopsis! It's interesting to look at the parallels in Distributed Computing, and how networks of computer nodes have to make decisions knowing that they may or may not be a good authority. Also, I'd note that we do actually practice deliberate democracy on a national scale: we do not allow under-18 citizens to vote (even though at least some of those are clearly more generally 'capable' than some who are over 18). $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 22:25
  • $\begingroup$ Nathaniel, I'd argue that both the United States and the UK (whichever "we" is referred to in this system) are far from deliberative democratic systems. Deliberative democracy requires community involvement built into the process of voting, not as an auxiliary presumption. Not allowing those under 18 to vote is not a deliberative solution, and I'd actually argue that the deliberative approach would be to include young voices within the deliberation process. Capability is a hegemonic notion built on a concept of identifying "purer" reason. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ Ah! I see. I think I somewhat mistook what you meant as deliberative democracy as the broader notion of how we decide which voices to listen to, rather than the rather subtler notion of being transparently intentional at each stage of narrowing from general populace to final decision makers. I agree vis a vis capability as a hegemonic notion trying to define what 'correct thought' is. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 22:49

Short answer to the question: no. Some excellent long answers already posted.

One additional reason in practice rather than abstract is this. How do you keep the test questions secret? And how can you convince the electorate that the answers were not leaked to a select group to bias the result? I think it's a given that even if complete secrecy was indeed maintainted, somebody will claim otherwise!

A better idea is to make voting slightly harder. I was opposed to the wider introduction of postal voting. Much better if voters are required to make themselves physically present at a polling station, or to apply in advance of each election giving reasons why physical presence is an unreasonable imposition. Historically medical infirmity attested by a doctor and pre-planned travel attested by an employer or hotel or transport bookings were accepted. If you did not vote that was regarded as precisely equivalent to "don't care" and willingness to abide by whatever result was obtained from the folks who did care.

Some people live nearer to polling stations than others so maybe increase the time penalty slightly. Quirky, but if the system was such that you had to sit in the polling station for five minutes in silence with all electronic devices turned off before you could cast your vote, that would be an improvement. Also those five minutes might encourage reconsideration and responsible voting.

I have done jury service. I hope that all juries are like the ones I was on and take plenty of time to consider before irrevocably deciding . The democratic voting system could enforce a pause for consideration and this could not be argued as a disguised attempt at gerrymandering.

BTW I suspect I am in a smallish minority in this Twitter-obsessed world of instant gratification and knee - jerk reactions. So be it.

  • $\begingroup$ It's unclear that you would net the benefit you suggest by enhancing the wait time. In particular, you are excluding people who have a legitimate need to be elsewhere: work. Further, it doesn't scale: with eleven hours a poll station is open you could only process ~160 people - and each station would need additional staff to ensure that everyone was in fact waiting five minutes. This is a lot of effort and exclusion and no clear indication what the benefit would be. Why is it better to vote in person? Can you describe the actual value created? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ Why vote in person? you have to care enough to do so. And there is a small payment to be made, in time not money so wealth does not lessen it. I think it might reduce mindless voting: for party x simply ba cause I always do, for Y because she is sexy, for Z because A doesn't want that. All too easy if a voting form arrives in the post and it takes five seconds to put an X on it. Voting in person also stops ballot papers being stolen out of the post or being delivered to deceased or demented people and cast by someone else. That's a different issue. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 20:13
  • $\begingroup$ What if you care, but would lose your job? You're forcing a choice between food and shelter and voting, which seems repressive. Further, there isn't much evidence that having it in the post means people think less about it. Arguably, they can think more because they can take their time, consult resources and reach a considered conclusion. Have you never seen a ballot measure and realized you didn't know what it was, but couldn't do anything about it at that point? (I'll let slide the worry about non-existent voter fraud.) $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 20:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ BTW people with a legitimate need to be elsewhere were never excluded. They could apply for a postal vote with proof of booked travel or an employers letter. Of course doing this takes time, so you have to care enough to bother, which is what I want! $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ This is purely my opinion, but it seems... against the interest of a 'free nation' to have to ask your employer for the right to vote by mail. I'm free, right? Free to vote flippantly or free to vote in a considered fashion. Why do I have to ask permission to vote? As long as it's one vote per citizen, why restrict how you vote? (Especially if it adds cost?) I just don't see that adding barriers and paperwork is a good use of anyone's time: does it actually improve the result? Or just create the verisimilitude of control? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 20:22

It will be extremely hard to agree on the questions, because such questions *are already used** to manipulate electorate - it is called push polling - wikipedia article has interesting examples.

I agree, the only way to save the republican for of government from the mob rule is to regulate who can vote. But mob will not agree to vote themselves out of power.

As quote attributed to Stalin says: It is not who votes, but who counts the votes.


This is a complicated issue.

As others have noted, it is almost impossible to make an unbiased test. However, there is something else that should be considered: democracy.

For example in Spain, general election was held a few days ago, and the party that won is well known for being involved in several corruption cases. Almost everyone who voted did know this. The problem is that this is the only party that defends certain interests that many Spaniards consider more important than having a non- corrupt government.

The best way in which this test may be useful is check if people know the election program and past actions of the parties. The problem with this is that most people have no idea of these issues. So, only a minority will have the right to vote.


With the rules you set I'm assuming you also mean a perfect voting populous.

Everyone who wants to can read and take the test, there is no bias in the information in the test, etc.

I think it would have profound effects on some voting outcomes and do little for others. What would happen is certain votes would not happen at all.

With full knowledge some candidates might not run on fear of the past coming into play. Referendums will never be put up because they simply promote a political agenda or meant to line pockets.


The effect of this can be modeled by vote cancellation to better demonstrate the effects that would occur. Instead of thinking of it as excluding some people from voting, permit everyone to vote, but have the testing system cast votes to negate the votes of those who were not qualified. In a 2 party system, this would just mean casting a vote for the other candidate. In other systems, the definition may be murkier.

By describing the effects in that form, its quite easy to see that those who design the test effectively are being given extra votes. For every person that fails their test, those designers of the test effectively get a vote against them. Of course, the designers don't get to choose which candidate the vote goes towards. If the dumb person votes for Candidate A, and the test makers wanted Candidate A to win, the testing system still gives a vote to Candidate B. But now there's some substantial incentive to subjugate the system. Now there is a very strong interest in corrupting the test such that people who vote against the test-designer's opinions fail the test. That incentive can literally be measured in free votes given to the test-designers.

Obviously you woudl need a panel to design these tests. But we haven't solved the problem. There is still a panel of individuals, and that panel has opinions about how the government should be run. That panel as a whole has now been given free votes!

You could solve this by having everyone vote on what the test should look like, but if you think people aren't fit to vote on a political party, they're certainly not up for the challenge of voting on a test to control political parties! The panel has to be a subset of the community, and they are effectively given more votes than usual to counteract the votes of the stupid.... or votes of the minority.

You could try to build a panel to control the panel, which would be a turtles all the way down argument. Eventually the buck would land on one person who makes subtle decisions that shake the foundations of our government.

We're buggered that the president, an elected official, will elect a bunch of judges to the supreme court. Think about how much power you're handing out now... your entire franchise!


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .